Deconstructing That Whiny “Goodbye Chicago” Post From a Transportation Perspective

Post author Eric Barry, who apparently had an awful time biking and riding transit in Chicago. Photo: Huffington Post
Post author Eric Barry, who apparently had an awful time biking and riding transit in Chicago. Photo: Huffington Post

I realize that probably too much digital ink has already been spilled over that recently published airing of grievances against Chicago by some dude who moved to our city from San Francisco, lived here for three years, didn’t get the hang of it, and then split for New York. Ridicule of the author is blowing up my social media feeds, and a Streetsblog Chicago reader already requested that I remove a link to the article from our morning headline stack due to some misogynist content.

But sorry folks, it’s late Friday afternoon and I can’t resist critiquing the piece from within my particular wheelhouse, sustainable transportation and urban planning. Yes, it’s irritating that the guy puts Chicago down because he couldn’t locate any affordable Lagunitas (not even at the company’s South Side brewpub?) and found the city to be socially conservative, even though he claims it’s “the liberal beacon of the Midwest.” (That’s Minneapolis, bro.) However, what I found most annoying was his complaint that Chicago is a hostile city for car-free living.

In fairness, I myself found our city to be an acquired taste when I first moved here, and it took a few years until I was truly comfortable navigating its 227 square miles on foot, bike, and CTA. Moreover, it’s unfortunate that within three years the author suffered one (presumably bike) crash where his jaw was broken and he lost some teeth, another where a jeep driver “gunned it out of a stop sign” and T-boned him, and a third incident where he slid off his cycle on the icy Lakefront Trail and into frigid Lake Michigan. But lets look at some of his other transportation beefs.

Residents will tell you Chicago’s public transit is amazing. They won’t mention an entirely non-existent east-west ‘L’ line on the North Side, or lack of bus transfers, or lines that don’t run at night, or that if they don’t own a car, the person they’re dating most certainly does.

Well, our city probably has the second-best transit system in the country after New York, especially if you factor in the extensive Metra regional commuter rail system and South Shore Line service to Indiana. But, sure, there’s room for improvement.

Certainly, more east-west and north-south CTA ‘L’ train lines would be a huge upgrade, which is something local advocates have recently been lobbying for via the Transit Future funding campaign. While there’s plentiful east-west bus service on the North Side and elsewhere, we definitely should be speeding up service on more CTA bus lines with timesaving features like dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding, and transit signal prioritization.

Come on, Dog, the Chicago region's transit coverage isn't perfect, but certainly doesn't suck. Image: Google Maps
Come on, Dog, the Chicago region’s transit coverage isn’t perfect, but certainly doesn’t suck. Olive-green lines are Metra commuter rail, other colors are CTA ‘L’ train routes. Image: Google Maps

But actually, the CTA does offer bus transfers if you use the Ventra payment card, which most customers are already doing. True, some bus and ‘L’ lines don’t run 24 hours, although many major bus routes and the Red and Blue lines do. But give me a break, Mr. San Francisco Expat, BART service between SF and the East Bay shuts down at midnight. Since you can’t walk or bike across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, that means there are no car-free option for making that key commute after hours, save for a long bus ride.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m friendly with tons of local couples and families in Chicago who don’t own cars. Chicago has the seventh-lowest rate of car ownership of major U.S. cities, with 28 percent of households car-free. Although it certainly varies depending on which neighborhood you live in, this is a fairly easy place to get around without owning an automobile, especially with the advent of ride-share.

Then there are the author’s gripes about density:

It’s a big city, and more importantly a very spread out one. Its population density is low for a major city. You can’t always walk to your grocery store. You can’t always walk to a busy strip of bars. And whatever friends you do make, you most probably cannot walk to them.

Yes, Chicago is less dense than New York or San Francisco. Certainly food and retail deserts are a major problem in large segments of the South and West sides, and we need to do more to address that issue. But Chicago’s population density is not low for a major U.S. city. It’s the fourth-densest in the country with 11,868 residents per square mile, just after Boston. We’ve certainly got our fair share of bustling, walkable shopping and nightlife districts compared to peer cities. As for making friends with people who live in your neighborhood, that’s up to you, of course.

So, sorry man, but if you had a lousy time in Chicago due your transportation and logistical challenges, it’s probably not us, it’s you.

  • Urbanbydesign

    Well, the 4/5 use the express tracks for a good length. If the 6 derailed at union square it would have a greater impact than say 103rd/Lex, where I think the Belmont comparison would make the most sense. When the recent derailment occurred I didn’t read anything about half the subway system being crippled because of it. Maybe I’m wrong.
    Point being that because of the rudimentary nature of the L system it’s extra vulnerable to screw ups. There aren’t redundancies and alternative routes to take. No one was able to walk 6 blocks and take a different line to try and get where they needed to go and left thousands stranded during morning rush hour.

  • Urbanbydesign

    I can do Wednesday, sounds fun!

  • potshot

    That Whole Foods I think got a $10 mil TIF grant. Wouldn’t want Whole Foods to actually PROVIDE a community service w/o the ca ching.

  • potshot

    DC, joined by about 7 other states, including MA, CA, OR, WA & Al are legal marijuana states. That ought facilitate a commute in those places.

  • potshot

    The north Western stop of the Blue Line is about 3 blocks from my house. Mercifully. I can’t imagine those apartment dwellers that live right adjacent to the line. Often have I thought, when I’ve heard although at the moment not utilized the Blue Line, when it roars by: if the US wasn’t wasting all those resources on its overseas military escapades, it could instead devote them to, among other things, quieting the Blue Line. A noise shield could be built around the line. Indubitably a better spending of resources than on the US’s wasting them in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Diego Garcia, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, and unknown locales somewhat north, west, east and south of there.

  • potshot

    Your point is well-taken, but mean. Don’t kill the messenger. John runs an edifying column in Reader. Maybe you’d like to direct criticism like yours here at Houston. Which has exactly zero zoning ordinances.

  • potshot

    Dysfunctional link.

  • potshot

    I hate cars. I even wrote a poem attempting Dr. Seuss. Only today, I remarked to a Chicagoan passerby my lament: “welcome to automobile hell. It’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.” I don’t get it. The energy and environmental crises exacerbate on several very serious fronts. Including and up to wars fought with white phosphourous weapons. And the response of US automobile manufacturers? Build larger cars. I will never understand the advent of the SUV. Do you really need that much car to get from point A to point B? That’s like having a “good morning” salute ignored. That person has obviously not read Eclesiasticus from the Apocryphal portion of the Bible. That SUV driver has obviously not read Thoreau.

    Hate Cars

    do not like cars

    at all. I hate above more.
    Most. Come on advertisements

    cars. They’re the worst.

    so phoney

    what you’d expect

    Madison Avenue


    you cars. Soon we won’t need people

    robots. To drive around in cars. And other engines

    crises exacerbate seriously on several different fronts

    Economic War fronts. People

    soon insist on driving the more and bigger.

    response to fronts our cars have gotten more leviathan

    matters the rest of the world when you have two chillin?

    a beach ball to tote to the lake bothering not mass transit

    response to the mess blooming to plague the earth

    cars have gotten more leviathan. A plaque of whales

    adage updated:

    leviathan. No water.

    don’t like the smell of a car

    if you drive them wide and far

    costly, almost your soul, to insure

    gas, license, made the roads to endure.

    be clear

    talking about automobiles

    run of the mill push carts

    the carless carry to stores of grocer.

    the kind of cars
    Widely available there

    automobiles fully fledged
    That are destroying the Earth

    I not

    this wasn’t merely

    society. I’d be honest enough

    refer to them as what they are.

    Polluting monsters, costs
    Turning profits for the few at NASCAR.

    its driving resource
    We become more wanton

    the waste as unconcerned

    vision as our 5 minute historical memory

    stalk the car like Moby Dick

    Consuming. Unconcerned. Sans water.

    pollute for raison d’etre, obnoxious and loud

    violence by that raison

    do not like cars,
    I hate cars, let’s be honest.

    like cocaine to me.
    I wouldn’t have one if you

    it to me free.
    There is this difference
    Between a car And
    cocaine. |
    Were I offered the former I’d accept.

    drive it To the junkyard.
    And ask the man there.

    I pay you twenty-five cent

    remove this junk from my hands?”

    I would not like cars
    you tried to get me to.
    If cars were orange, white or blue

    wouldn’t give a hoooo

    Still could I care less.
    Let them
    pollute the skies.

    ain’t me.

    don’t like Jeeps.

    we arrive at my pet peeve

    and car turners

    the purpose of signal turns

    are a dif’rent kind of oblivion

    After the World War 2 smash
    ’em upper

    a chassis might often

    referred to as a jeep.

    all the same to the wrecking ball.

    the rest of the behemoths,

    compacts are capitalist contraptions

    them rubber, buy them glue

    them puff smoke. Build them rude

    upon the road rage

    forever capitalist’s gains

    war hawk’s bomb, US indifference

    along on four wheels.

    they’re parked.
    I don’t deny that.

    still odious.

    hate cars, in fact.

    not that I just don’t like them.
    I don’t like gasoline.

    cars gobble gasoline.

    not to drink

    that are electric

    unplug from petrol,

    plug into nuclear. Or coal.

    difference. Other twist.

    cars guzzle gas.

    more than others.

    owners car less than others

    their externalized capitalist costs.

    have exacerbated

    multiple fronts: economic,
    War, ecological

    cars have actually gotten bigger.

    my foot has touched neither a pedal

    or brake In 20 years.

    shiver in terror the rare times

    the passenger seat.

    me a bus any day

    train. There I can read.

    as if eating or breathing.
    I hate being in cars.

    rather brand new smell

    theft of nature

    catalytic muffler

    ground to disengage.

    I feel much safer any day.

    hate cars. Larger I say.

    the rainbow.
    The shinier the worser.

    I don’t like them either.

    if they look like tents.

    say they have pseudo-camouflage

    would rather not share the world with them

    can’t fool me. They’re ugly.

    pollute. Don’t laugh. Now

    things bear repeating

    do not like cars. I hate them.

    the moniker it’s still a Jeep.

    knows that history, right?

    whole sordid chapter in humankind?

    of. Finally no matter the adverts

    Jeep is still a chassis on four wheels.

    is to say a car wreck waiting to happen.

    you were at a bus stop

    the city. And cars are rushing by you

    of them speeding. One after the other

    the other over again.

    you feel safe?

    mind the air pollution

    one careened out of control

    be dead. Or worse.

    got an idea now, right?

    I hate cars.

    are other reasons

    for one.

    very thing automobiles are destroying

    Avenue would have you believe
    Cars are bringing you to.
    would be funny har har

    the consequences not so dire.

    there were no cars

    the highways at all?

    would be worse.

    So, I think about ten percent

    the cars on the road today is about right.

    is to say, we ought junk 90% of them

    would have lost nothing.

    the contrary, we’d have gained much more.

    earth would be the better off.

    need for less gasoline
    Don’t forget Fukushima

    capitalists vomit

    profit-making energy idea.

    still hate cars

    because I want ten percent of them to remain

    means I don’t want to be lonely.

    is a larger problem here

    do not like gasoline

    certainly not to drink

    do not like cars

    pink, green, orange

    or blue. Jeeps I do not like either.

    above all SUVs. Those I’m livid about

    energy crisis has worsened. The cars have turned into whales.

    there’s not even any water in the streets.

    are the absolute worst.

  • Urbanbydesign

    I wasn’t trying to be mean, we are all adults and I’m sure he’s not losing any sleep over my comments.
    If he’s responding to the article from a transportation angle and criticizing the points in the letter then he subjects his critique to criticism as well. I feel like as a recent transplant with a “fresh/outsider” perspective that I would confirm this guy’s criticisms about Chicago not being a very walkable car-free living city.
    If John thinks everything in Chicago is skippy, then great for him. It’s not for many others and I’ve read as much in the other comments. If he’s in an advocacy role then he deserves to be held accountable. I’m sure he shares the desire to improve biking/walking/transit in this city. Let’s make sure he doesn’t get complacent. :)
    I have a degree in urban planning, I’m well aware of Houston’s situation and the zoning policies there are often misunderstood. They have plenty of land use laws that are de facto zoning rules. I’d also say that Houston doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It doesn’t tell everyone what a world class city it is and how world class everything there is when it’s clearly not. I’d add lastly that the kerfuffle is about some guy who left the city and gave his reasons why and shared that experience and his impressions. He wasn’t leaving Houston. You couldn’t pay me to live there, regardless.
    And sorry to hear about the blue line noise, I’m sure it’s intense.

  • potshot

    I missed my 2:30 court bus stop today by only like one stop. And ended up walking about 4 to 8 miles in directionless search for the court house. And finally arrived an hour late to having the case summarily dismissed. Chicago transit isn’t perfect. And it’s certainly underfunded. All you have to do is compare the US military budget to know that.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • potshot

    As you know, Greefield’s column is relatively new to Chicago Reader. Nor do I think his reporting reflects the fact that he thinks everything in Chicago is skippy. He’s reported numerous times in Chicago Reader of bicyclist fatalities.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s all good, folks. And I think it’s awesome that several Streetsblog readers and their kids will be having an urban planning play date at the Logan Square Tastee Freez as a result of this discussion!

    But Urbanbydesign’s claim that “Houston doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It doesn’t tell everyone what a world class city it is and how world class everything there is when it’s clearly not”? On the contrary:

    “Alive with energy and rich in diversity, Houston is a dynamic mix of imagination, talent and first-class attractions that makes it a world-class city. Home to a vibrant economy, beautiful surroundings and a population full of optimism and spirit, it’s no wonder that Houston is a popular international destination.”

  • Urbanbydesign

    Jesus Christ. How about Houstonians don’t go around telling everyone how world class it is. Chicago has a reputation and the nicknames to go along with it, rightly and wrongly. What city on a government run website isn’t going to talk themselves up? I’ll wait for the google “houstonians bragging about Houston” search gotcha response.
    The fact that we are talking about Houston and not Chicago illustrates my point that Chicago has a meltdown shitfit when someone dares offer criticism. But I’m sure that there’s some online anecdote to refute that as well. 🙄🙄🙄

  • johnaustingreenfield

    So basically, you can make whatever claims you like about Chicagoans being overly defensive of our city, and if we point out that your statements make no sense, well, that just proves your point. Sounds like a no-lose scenario!

    Looking forward to further discussion over pints on the 21st — see you then.

  • Urbanbydesign

    The point I was trying to make is that calling this a world class transportation system does not make it so. I don’t think that Houston claims to have a world class system. I don’t think that’s a nonsensical response.
    I think it exemplifies a very contradictory dynamic within the media world here where the tribune and other outlets are constantly running “why do you stay?” pieces or the constant hand wringing over population loss while simultaneously shouting down anyone who points out what sucks or is hard about living here. Chicago sells itself to outsiders as something it’s not. It’s a great city, but it’s not what it purports itself to be. Some who arrive at that reality are disillusioned and write dumb letters about it. And then Chicago loses its mind.
    My frustration with this conversation is every example I’ve provided has been met with with a technicality rebuttal. You never did address why the Paris metro is so much more extensive and yet the city is so much smaller in land area. Or why we are twice the size of Berlin’s metro and they also have a much more extensive network than we do.
    I don’t know why using the city of Houston’s website as an example of my being wrong wouldn’t invite a bit of ridicule. Do you think choose Chicago is going to offer reasons to not visit? Come on. That seems nonsensical.
    But, I’m not from around here. My experience and impressions don’t matter, and this is the best system in the best city ever and there’s nothing wrong with it. My and my family’s loss and now I know my place. I’ll find the Houston streetsblog page and start yelling at them since that’s apparently what I’m supposed to be doing.

  • Steve Timble

    Well then, it appears that we get to enjoy both great conversation and a Green River Blizzard tonight. @Carter O’Brien will you be coming by?

  • Steve Timble

    Hey UrbanD -We’re at The Freeze. Are you here?
    Hey UrbanD – Are you at The Freeze?

  • tysler78

    I moved from Chicago after ten years to the bay area of San Francisco. Public transportation here is God awful. It’s expensive, old, over crowded, dirty. I seriously miss Chicago public transportation. Couple things he got right though. It’s not as progressive or liberal in Chicago as people like to think. It is a segregated town, and many people are from conservative points of view. Overall the people are much friendlier in Chicago though and it has other advantages like available and affordable housing and apartments. We are also in the midst of a major homeless crisis here. Overall, different strokes for different folks and every city has its pros and cons, it’s what you make of it.


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